A secret to better work communication

Remote Communication
Have you ever had an in-person conversation, where you have an engaging conversation with someone, only to leave the meeting and find within a few hours that you both aren't on the same page?

It's annoying - right?

I'm extroverted and a lot of my communication is off-the-cuff, which means that the potential to be misunderstood is higher than those who are thoughtful and composed when they speak. My long term goal is to be a more thoughtful communicator, but this is going to take a lot of work and time.

How can I improve my communication sooner rather than later?

I wanted to share a way of thinking about communication that has made a huge impact on my career. It's based around a simple principle called communication redundancy.

What is redundancy?

The definition of redundancy (in an engineering context) is: the inclusion of extra components which are not strictly necessary to functioning, in case of failure in other components. 

I first heard of redundancy being used in software engineering, in the context of keeping a website up and running. Software engineers will prepare themselves for sudden traffic spikes and random events, by having redundancy. If one server goes down, there's another server to handle things so the website stays up and running. It's a good idea, as it protects you against downside.

Staying warm in the Winter

Growing up, I lived out in the middle of nowhere in Maine. Sometimes, we would have snowstorms so bad that we would lose electricity. When you lose power, it's not good. You and your pipes could freeze.

Fortunately we had redundancy.

Redundancy
This is a generator. If we lost power, we'd start this up and run the essentials, so the house didn't freeze and we stayed warm. This is another example of redundancy.

Communication problems

The reality is that humans think they are better communicators than they really are; there's also a lot of noise that we need to contend with to ensure that the recipient understands our message.

For example, after a meeting occurs, it's easy to forget the key components of the conversation. Our mind can only handle so much information before we start forgetting stuff. This leads to miscommunication.

Put simply, we need to create communication redundancy, like the engineer with the servers, or my family with the generator.

Most people will try to create redundancy by repeating themselves over and over. If you are like me and don't want to constantly repeat yourself in a meeting, here's some strategies to help.

Step 1: Recognize when communication redundancy is necessary

The first step is to recognize when you need communication redundancy. I recommend looking at a few variables to help:

  • What is the cost of failure? If you are unable to get on the same page, what might that cost you? If the potential cost is high, default to having redundancy
  • How strong is the existing relationship? As you get to know someone, it gets easier and easier to understand when a message isn't landing properly. If you don't know someone well, you should probably build in redundancy.
  • What is the communication channel? This one deserves its own section and may be the most important factor.

Swap the communication channel

Each mode of communication has certain benefits and drawbacks. For example, an in-person conversation is a rich way to communicate, as you can see body language and other non-verbal cues. The downside of this approach is that it's easy to forget the conversation without a way to review the communication after.

Common Ground
In the image above, you can see various methods of communication and areas where each channel excels (and where others work better). These are factors when trying to ground communication.

You will notice that writing stuff down enables reviewability and revisability, which are not present in face-to-face conversations. 

Communication redundancy occurs when you have covered the majority of the factors listed above. This is especially important when working remotely.

A simple habit

Here's a simple rule of thumb. If you are writing (a form of asynchronous communication) and want to establish communication redundancy, swap the communication to a synchronous channel to drive your message home.

The inverse should be applied as well. If you are using a synchronous form of communication (phone call, in-person meeting, Zoom call, etc), create communication redundancy through a written, tangible format.

Step 2: How communication redundancy works in practice

Let's show how this works with some real-world examples:

Client Meetings

In college, I would consult with local businesses, helping them build websites and perform online marketing activities. I'd meet with the business owner in-person (or over the phone), and we'd have a discussion about a project I was working on.

Then, after the conversation ended, I'd send an email recap with highlights of what we discussed and next steps. The reasoning was simple - I wanted to double-check that we were on the same page. If there was still confusion, this email would help bring that to light.

In this scenario, I created communication redundancy. I tried to protect against misunderstandings by using another communication channel to relay a particular message.

In addition, this information was written in "stone" and could be referenced over time (via email). If something went wrong, there was tangible evidence of what we discussed.

Slack conversations

Next up, I've used a similar approach when having a conversation in Slack, a chat app for businesses. Let's say I'm working on a project with someone outside the office and we're conversing over Slack. We run into an issue where it seems like we are on a different page. What do we do?

Switch the communication channel!

"Let's jump on a video call and discuss this." After the call finishes, someone follows-up with a recap and next steps.

This example isn't rocket science, but it illustrates how communication redundancy can help you.

In conclusion: avoid problems with communication redundancy

If you want to become a better communicator, it all starts with recognizing that you are not a great communicator by default. This is intrinsic to the human experience.

If you create redundancy when you communicate, you can decrease the probability of misunderstanding and be more effective at work.